Friday, July 24, 2009

Monkeys: they can make monkeys out of their elders

"Can monkeys mislead?", asks Jef Akst at The Scientist (03 June 2009, paywall).
Capuchin monkeys cry "predator" to trick more senior members of their troop into fleeing the dinner table, leaving more food for themselves, according to a ...
Here are some comments, andalso here.

I don't understand doubt as to whether monkeys can mislead when dogs and cats can do the same thing. Many are the cats who pretended to swallow a vet's pill I was administering. But - suddenly suspicious, I insisted on checking their gums, and sure enough, there the pill was, ready to be spit out in an obscure corner as soon as I wasn't looking. Later, I learned the trick of sticking the pill far below the cat's gag reflex, shutting its mouth, and raising its face toward the ceiling, while girdling its shoulders.

Sadly, the elderly felines never realized the relationship between the pills and their continued good health. They probably just thought I was being aggressive to demonstrate my superiority or something.

Another one for the "apes and monkeys (but not cats) are just like people" file, I guess ...

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Albert Einstein on the importance of faith in the reality of what we see

Einstein himself was a pantheist (everything is part of God), but he was quite clear on the importance of believing that what we perceive as meaningful in the world around us really is so. It is not an illusion created by the buzz of neurons in our brains.

Consider some of his remarks on these subjects:
"Science can only be created", Einstein said, "by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, 1954.
In a letter to V. T. Aaltonen (7 May 1952), Einstein explained his opinion that belief in a personal God is better than atheism. Einstein said, "Mere unbelief in a personal God is no philosophy at all." [Einstein Archive 59-059]
Here I think Einstein spoke more wisely than many realize. A certain sort of atheism comes quite easily to many urbanites today. Milk, in their view, comes from the store (not the cow or the grass or the earth in which the grass seed falls. Same with fruit and vegetables, and pizza and ...

They don't realize that they are the last link in an intricate, intensively designed chain; they think it all somehow just happens. So they don't deny only God, they deny nature as well. And worse, in the case of nature, they often undertake poorly-thought-out "environment" causes that simply benefit one weed rather than another, one form of urban wildlife rather than another. Not necessarily a big problem, but not especially useful either.


Neuroscience: Is the patient "vegetative" or "minimally conscious"?

Celeste Biever raises an important topic in "Doctors missing consciousness in vegetative patients" (New Scientist, July 21, 2009): About 40% of people diagnosed as in a "vegetative" state may be minimally conscious. Whereas a person in a persistent vegetative state may have no real awareness,
A minimally conscious state (MCS) is a sort of twilight zone, only recently recognised, in which people may feel some physical pain, experience some emotion, and communicate to some extent. However, because consciousness is intermittent and incomplete in MCS, it can be sometimes very difficult to tell the difference between the two.
Recent research focuses on efforts to disentangle the two conditions.

Minimally conscious people may benefit from therapies that provide no value for people in a persistent vegetative state. Another concern is that decisions to withhold food to bring about death (legal in many jurisdictions now) could be inflicted on people who are just conscious enough to be aware of what is happening.

See also: The inner lives of people classed as vegetative

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Neuroscience and popular culture: "Wired" business bumph on leadership

A friend alerts me to this:
His work suggests that the behavioural and emotional qualities of leadership can be traced to neurological activity in identified regions of the brain. He is working on linking this activity with the qualities that best benefit those at the top of a company to create training techniques that develop effective leadership abilities.

Prof Balthazard was drawn to the work of neuroscientist Jeffrey Fannin, a psychologist and executive director of the Center for Cognitive Enhancement, a clinic near ASU’s campus. Dr Fannin scanned patients’ brains and found that signature patterns existed for dysfunctional behaviours. Through exercises and scanning, he was able to help patients train their brains to change their behaviour.

The two men collected data from 55 business and community leaders with a variety of leadership skills, including entrepreneurs, bankers, lawyers, doctors, a land developer, a retired business school dean, a senior diplomat and a mountaineer. Prof Balthazard measured the electrical activity of their brains and demonstrated what he is believes is 100 per cent accuracy in determining who is a strong leader. He has also discovered that leaders with high “psychological capital” (hope, optimism, resilience) display different brain activity to those with low psychological capital.
Rest here, but you must register.

Personally, I am skeptical. Historical experience shows that many different styles of leadership work, depending on who the followers are. Some leaders are collegial, others charismatic, others enigmatic or authoritarian. What works? Well, anything, everything, and nothing, depending on the circumstances.

If Prof Balthazard achieved 100 percent accuracy "in determining who is a strong leader," he must have a very specific setting in mind, with highly specified types of followers.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

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Neuroplasticity: Girl's brain rewires before birth, saves vision

In "Half a brain girl recovers vision", the BBC reports:

Scientists say they have solved the mystery of how a girl with half a brain has near perfect vision in one eye.

The experts were baffled by the 10-year-old girl who was born missing the right side of her brain, whose job it is to map the left field of vision.

Scans revealed the German girl's brain rewired itself during development when she was still in her mother's womb.
Dr Lars Muckli, of the university's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging, working with German colleagues from Frankfurt, said: "The brain has amazing plasticity but we were quite astonished to see just how well the single hemisphere of the brain in this girl has adapted to compensate for the missing half.

"Despite lacking one hemisphere, the girl has normal psychological function and is perfectly capable of living a normal and fulfilling life. She is witty, charming and intelligent."
Only recently has it become possible to determine that some people simply don't have half or more of their brains. When that is a natural condition to which they have had time to adapt, they often do surprisingly well.

More "brain absent" or related stories from The Mindful Hack, my blog on neuroscience and spirituality:

Just how much brain do you need?

Brain? Do you really need a brain?

The inner lives of people classed as vegetative

We still have no explanation for why humans have minds or thoughts